Newscut Flashback: The women of World War II

Not long after NewsCut was hatched, I drove around the state interviewing women who had served in World War II for a series on women and the war.  Whenever I contacted one of my intended subjects, their response was almost always the same: “I’m not very newsworthy.” They were wrong, of course. Everyone’s got a  story worth telling.

Most of them are gone now including two  of the three who I talked to almost 11 years ago to the day. Haily Smoger died in March 2016. June Johnson died last October. They are survived by their stories.

(Originally published April 30, 2008)


Alice Iverson, 88, of Two Harbors, Minn., (above right) probably wouldn’t have joined the Marines if it hadn’t been for Kenny Trowbridge. She was engaged to be married to him when he was killed in the battle of Tarawa in the South Pacific in late 1943. He had just written his mother asking her to take Iverson to Duluth to buy a cedar chest. Instead, she says, all she wanted was a locket with his picture. She took it with her into the Marines. Two brothers had already enlisted. One of them was killed in the Philippines earlier in World War II.

Haily Smoger, 87, (above middle) was making parts for submarines at a defense plant in Milwaukee when she got fed up with making less money than the man who worked next to her. “That’s all it took,” for her to join the Air Corps. “I thought it would get me off the ground a little bit,” she told me Wednesday. She lost a brother in the war, too. Clarence was killed in Germany.

the_johnsons_two_harbors.jpgJune Johnson, 88, of Two Harbors (above left) joined the Marines because her husband had left for the war a week before Christmas, just a few months after they were married in 1942. She worked in Duluth servicing juke boxes and slot machines. During a lunch break, she says, she decided to join the Marines. She shipped out on her and her husband’s anniversary.

Over coffee and cookies in Iverson’s home, a couple of blocks from Lake Superior, all three spoke of their service — and sacrifice — in another time of war.

“We all had a cause,” June Johnson said. “Ours was to relieve the men for duty.”

Sgt. Smoger spent most of the war working at a B-24 maintenance facility in Mountain Home, Idaho. Cpl. Iverson worked at a PX in North Carolina. Johnson was among the first women Marines at Camp Pendleton, where she was in charge of a refueling station. They also serve who pump gas.

alice_kerry.jpgAfter the war ended, all three returned to the lake. June became the Civil Defense director for her town. Her husband worked for years as a plumber. “A lot of widows cried the day he died,” she said. Alice’s first date after the war was with the same man who was her first date before the war: the man she married. A few years ago, she was asked to introduce John Kerry during a presidential campaign stop on the North Shore.

Haily wasn’t finished sacrificing. Her son, Michael, was killed in an ambush in Vietnam. She recalled the day in the late ’90s when she got a phone call from the Two Harbors tourist booth. It was from a Kansas attorney who had wanted for 30 years to visit her son’s grave. “He had been wounded and Michael gave up a spot on an evacuation helicopter. He said Michael told him, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get the next one.’ There was no next one.”

The three Two Harbors veterans will be honored, along with other Minnesota women veterans of World War II next week. All three say it’s long overdue. “We couldn’t live at home like other women did,” Johnson said. “It was a different life, but it was a good life.”

They don’t say that about the life for today’s veterans. Johnson volunteers at a Veteran’s Administration Hospital in West Palm Beach, Florida. “I see a lot of young men just hobbling around; it’s all you see,” she said. “There are homeless veterans and I saw a nurse give one a plastic bag with a banana and a piece of cake; he was homeless.”

“We’re not doing right by our veterans,” Smoger says.

“A disgrace,” says Alice Iverson.

(See part one of the series.)